Why India Needs Pakistan's Musharraf to Succeed

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A Pakistani family listens to the televised address made by Musharraf

Supporting U.S. military action in Afghanistan may have been easy for Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf compared with the war he's declared at home. The arrest of more than 1,500 Islamist militants since Saturday and the outlawing of five of their key organizations underlines the seriousness of Musharraf's pledge to rein in what he called an extremist "state-within-a-state." But to really do this requires riding a tiger twenty years in the making.

There were few signs Monday of popular discontent over the crackdown — not least, perhaps, because the organizational leadership of the radical groups was either under arrest or on the run. But the enthusiastic support for the general who named himself president after seizing power two years ago among newspapers traditionally critical of military rule suggests that Musharraf has solid support among middle class Pakistanis for stopping the "Talibanization" of Pakistan. Although the General's actions have been prompted in large part by the Indian military buildup on his borders and threats of war unless Islamabad reined in Pakistan-based terror groups, their significance is far deeper — Musharraf appears to be making an epic existential choice for a state that has for the past decade hovered on the brink of failure. Even sections of the Indian media have hailed him as "Pakistan's Ataturk," a reference to the founder of modern Turkey who salvaged a moderate Muslim state from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

The blowback

Musharraf's resolve will naturally be tested by the rank-and-file Islamists on the streets, but he easily contained their noisy protests against his support for the war in Afghanistan, and is unlikely to have much trouble doing so again. The crucial test, however, will come from within his own security services. The Islamist organizations targeted by General Musharraf have served as de facto proxies for Pakistan's intelligence services, cultivating a reserve of militant Pakistanis willing to be recruited and trained for jihad both in Afghanistan and Kashmir, in service not only to their own brand of radical Islam but also of the unofficial dirty war being waged against India in Kashmir. During the course of the U.S. operation in Afghanistan, Musharraf was forced to mount a top-level purge in his own military, tacitly acknowledging the widespread influence of Islamic radicals within the officer corps. Those soldiers and spies who have cultivated the Islamist radicals in service to the objectives of military governments over the years will, no doubt, feel an intense sense of betrayal

It is also quite conceivable that a number of the Pakistani militants trained to spread terror across the border will respond to Musharraf's crackdown by launching a campaign of domestic terrorism against Musharraf's own regime and its secularist supporters. Or, if they were to take their cue from the radical Islamist opposition to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, they might refrain from directly targeting the Pakistani authorities but instead launch dramatic terror strikes inside India, hoping to provoke a full-blown war.

Still, Musharraf had no choice, and not simply because of the Indian troops massing on his border demanding action against the perpetrators of recent terror strikes in New Delhi and Srinagar. Even inside Pakistan, the militant groups cultivated by the intelligence services to provide an army of jihadis for Kashmir had evolved into uncontrollable armed groups that fomented violence against Shiite Muslims, Christians and other Pakistani minorities. As General Musharraf noted in his speech last Saturday, they have come to represent a threat to Pakistan's own internal stability and even its long-term survival. "Violence and terrorism have been going on for years and we are weary and sick of this Kalashnikov culture," Musharraf warned. "Pakistan has become a soft state where law means little, if anything." And he vowed to restore tolerance and the rule of law.

How we got here

The radical Islamist challenge in Pakistan originates, in its current form, with the regime of General Zia ul Haq, who ruled from 1977 until his death 1989. General Zia overthrew the elected leftist government of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and began cultivating Islamist groups as a counterweight to the challenge from the left. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 made General Zia the key U.S. ally in the region, providing a staging ground for efforts to assist the Afghan mujahedeen — a process that dramatically expanded the conservative Islamist infrastructure in Western Pakistan with massive Saudi funding.

But once the Soviet Union had collapsed, India became a far more appealing strategic partner to Washington — a stable democracy with a potential powerhouse economy led by a booming IT sector, it seemed a more natural ally for the Clinton administration than politically unstable Pakistan to the north with its basket-case economy and its close links with the Taliban. And as the regime that Pakistan had nurtured in Afghanistan came increasingly into conflict with the U.S. over the export of terrorism, Islamabad found itself the odd man out as the Islamist infrastructure it had cultivated partly in service to Cold War objectives now came increasingly into conflict with the West. September 11 finally forced a decisive choice on General Musharraf. Indeed, even after the Taliban's defeat, Washington's own interests in pursuing al Qaeda elements fleeing Afghanistan have prompted it to support India's demands for a crackdown on their Pakistani supporters. Pakistan's other key Cold War patron, China, likewise has its own interests in curbing the influence of radical Islam in the region, and the high-profile visit of Chinese premier Zhu Rongji to New Delhi on Monday despite India's tense military standoff with Beijing's traditional ally has impressed on Musharraf that he has no alternative but to make war on the Islamists.

India too has a substantial interest in General Musharraf's success. Failure would see the general ousted and replaced by a leadership more prone to Islamist adventurism. And while India's military superiority would almost always prevail, New Delhi's long-term interests in attracting growth and investment and realizing its potential in the global marketplace are imperiled by the specter of continued conflict with a hostile and nuclear-armed neighbor. Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes may have repeatedly warned that if Musharraf fails to rein in the Islamists, India will have to do the job itself — but military confrontation remains an unappealing option. Despite India's posture of readiness to strike even after Musharraf's speech, New Delhi is likely to give the general time to fight the Islamists.

Even if Musharraf succeeds in shutting down the extremists, of course, the Kashmir question remains to be resolved. The general made clear in his speech that the struggle for the disputed territory remains at the heart of Pakistan's national identity, although he appears to have conceded the principle that Pakistan can no longer get directly involved in insurgent activity in Indian-controlled Kashmir even though he recognized the right of Kashmiris themselves to take up arms against India. By shutting down terrorism, in fact, Musharraf potentially strengthens Pakistan's diplomatic position in calling for an internationally mediated political solution that would allow Kashmir's own people to determine its fate — a prospect not relished in New Delhi. But the logic of Musharraf's crackdown, and India's patient response, suggests the potential for the emergence of a consensus between India and Pakistan that the fate of Kashmir should not be allowed to continue to disfigure their relationship, and their long-term national interests.